NUTRITION FOR A HEALTHY PREGNANCY

So you are planning a pregnancy!

Great! You have faced up to the life changes that having a child will bring, and decided that you are ready for them. Maybe you have already started making the adjustments that you know you have to make.

Perhaps you’ve even started thinking about names, and wondering how to decorate the nursery. There is a lot to think about, and one of the most important things is your own health – not only for yourself, but also how your health will affect your child.

The infant developing inside you is wholly dependent on you. We all know how a mother’s poor health or unwise behaviour during pregnancy can damage her child for life. We have all heard about the dangers of rubella (German measles) or foetal alcohol syndrome.

But what about the positive side?

What can you do to enhance your own health, both before and during pregnancy, and give the precious burden growing within you the best possible start in life?

In this article we deal with four phases where nutrition is important:

* before falling pregnant,

* conception,

* the pregnancy itself, and

* nursing your infant.

Please note that you will find that there is some overlap – some of the same nutrients will be important in each phase.

One last point before we get started. In home life, the mother usually plays the crucial role of keeping the whole family healthy (especially the men-folk!).

It can be a heavy responsibility, but if you don’t do it, who will?

BEFORE FALLING PREGNANT

First of all, look at your lifestyle, and especially your diet.

Make sure that you are eating properly. Stop smoking and drinking alcohol, and cut back on caffeine. Make sure that you are exercising enough, so that you are physically fit.

Why stop smoking?

Smoke is poisonous! It is one thing being willing to poison yourself, but poisoning an innocent foetus is something else entirely. Smoking increases the likelihood of a baby with a low birth weight. That puts it at greater risk for infections and other diseases.

In addition, babies exposed to nicotine, or second-hand smoke, are more likely to suffer from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome or cot death) than other infants.

Also scary is evidence from Australia that smoking during pregnancy can increase the child’s risk of cancer in later life by 70 to 80 percent!

Why stop drinking?

When you drink alcohol, so does your baby! It passes through the placenta to the developing foetus totally freely. This is dangerous because alcohol is a known teratogen. That means it interferes with normal human development resulting in birth defects.

For example, if you drink alcohol you increase your risk of giving birth to a baby who is affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Symptoms of this condition include:

* Characteristic abnormal facial features: small head, narrow eye openings, larger than average nose, thin upper lip and flattened groove between nose and upper lip.

* Low birth weight and slow growth.

* Developmental delays due to problems with the central nervous system.

* Poor muscle strength and coordination.

* Behavioural problems – irritability, problems with sucking, poor bonding with mother

* Cognitive problems – poor attention at school, bad behaviour and learning problems.

* Birth defects – involving ears, eyes, heart, bones and the urinary tract.

The good news is that these are totally preventable if you make the correct choices.

And no, there is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to drink during pregnancy, but the higher the intake the greater the risk.

And then, cut back on caffeine. High caffeine intake (more than 3 cups of coffee a day, for example) increases the risk of low birth weight and miscarriage. It is actually probably best to cut out caffeine-containing drinks completely during you pregnancy, just to make sure that all is well.

FALLING PREGNANT

For some couples falling pregnant at all is difficult. This can be for many reasons, and there may or may not be solutions for some of them. However, nutritional deficiencies and stress in both the prospective father and mother can play an important role.

If falling pregnant is a problem, first start with improving your nutrition before going the long and arduous route of medical intervention. You might be pleasantly surprised!

For the prospective moms:

* First and foremost is a good prenatal multivitamin/multimineral to ensure that all your dietary needs are indeed satisfied. This is definitely not a time to run short of any of the essentials.

- Make sure that it contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid which is essential for fertility. Taken along with other B vitamins, it helps to maintain a healthy cervix and regulate hormones.

It is also necessary for preventing birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly (defective brain development). Note that the neural tubes of your baby will start to develop before you even know that you are pregnant, so be prepared in advance.

- Make sure that its does not contain too much Vitamin A. Up to 5000 IU is considered safe.

- Make sure that the B vitamins are present. Vitamin B12 in particular may also play a role in neural tube defects. Up to 10 micrograms can safely be taken.

* Then make sure that you eat whole grains. These supply essential nutrients and also prevent the insulin spikes that happen to counteract the blood sugar surges when refined carbohydrates are eaten.

* Make sure that you get an abundance of antioxidants by eating fresh fruits and vegetables which supply carotenoids, flavonoids and other essential nutrients. They are designed to deal with the harmful free radicals that can damage ova, sperm and the reproductive organs.

* Omega-3 fatty acids are absolutely vital for fertility as well as for the health of the mother and the developing foetus.

* Before falling pregnant make sure to replenish your iron reserves. Once you are pregnant the baby will draw on these stores to produce its own red blood cells, and you might become anaemic. This leads to fatigue and general lethargy.

But make sure you have your ferritin and complete blood count levels measured before taking iron as a supplement as you do not want to take too much. If miscarriages are a problem, additional Vitamin E for the mother can be very helpful.

For the men:

For the men, (who are responsible for about one third of all cases of infertility), it is essential to be properly nourished to ensure that your sperm is healthy and its production is adequate.

In fact, the prospective Dad should be equally as well nourished as his partner to ensure the best outcome of a pregnancy. Some special additional points follow:

* A good broad spectrum multivitamin/multimineral is essential. This should be taken well in advance of the proposed pregnancy – it takes at least 3 months to develop healthy sperm.

- Zinc is present in high amounts in testes and the prostate gland, semen and the sperm itself. It is necessary for the production of sperm and the protection of the genetic material in the sperm, and also for the survival of sperm during its journey towards fertilization of the egg.

- Selenium must be present. It is an antioxidant involved in sperm production. Together with Vitamin E it protects sperm from damage.

- Vitamin E is also an antioxidant. It plays a special role in protecting the outer covering of the sperm which needs to be undamaged if fertilization is to take place.

- Vitamin C has been found to increase sperm count as well as sperm motility (movement) and fertilization. It protects the genetic material within the sperm during its 3-month maturation period.

- Take a product that does not contain iron! Men usually get enough iron from their normal diets, and too much iron is damaging to sperm.

* Omega-3 is essential for the health of the male reproductive organs.

* Dehydration can be a cause of a low sperm count leading to infertility. Men should therefore try and drink water regularly when planning to have a baby (and at other times too!).

AFTER CONCEPTION AND DURING PREGNANCY

The foetus needs proper nutrition from the very beginning of life – as soon as the egg is fertilised. In fact, much of the damage done to a foetus by poor nutrition occurs within the first few weeks.

And remember that a person could in fact be pregnant without knowing it during these crucial early weeks.

So, as soon as thoughts of parenthood enter the picture, start to make sure that your body (and that of the Dad-to-be) is well supplied with all the nutrients that you yourself need, and that will be used by the developing foetus.

The dangers – and, on the other hand, the benefits - are not purely physical either. There is a lot of evidence to show that children borne to well-nourished mothers who are taking supplemental vitamins have higher IQs than those who are less fortunate! And indeed that they are more content and less niggly.

OK, so now you know you are pregnant. You are taking care of your general good health by controlling your diet, not drinking or smoking, and minimising your intake of caffeine. (Hairspray is another thing to avoid, incidentally, as it is associated with a common birth defect in boys called hypospadias. This is a condition where there is a displacement of the urinary opening to the underside of the penis.)

Keep yourself on a healthy diet, and continue doing what you were doing when still trying to conceive! The good news is that using nutritional supplements may in fact reduce the incidence of ‘morning sickness’. That alone would be reason enough to use them! For some women it is even more critical since they find themselves feeling nauseous and are unable to eat healthy diets and so are certainly not adequately nourished.

Important points include the following:

* Watch out for too much weight gain. Normally you should put on about 11 to 15 kilograms (25 to 35 pounds) during your pregnancy (less if you started off overweight, more if you were previously underweight).

If you put on more than this, you increase the chance that your child will be overweight or obese in later life.

* Continue with your good multivitamin/multimineral supplement throughout your pregnancy (and beyond!). This has been recommended by many reputable medical people, including the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada and Harvard Medical School.

- In addition to preventing neural tube defects, folic acid plays an important role in preventing high blood pressure from developing, and therefore pre-eclampsia (toxaemia).

- Niacin supplementation in the first trimester has been associated with healthier newborns

– higher birth weight, longer length and greater head circumference.

- Vitamin B6 reduces the nausea of pregnancy.

- Iron requirements increase during pregnancy. The growing foetus and placenta use it, and the increase in red blood cell production in the mother uses it for additional haemoglobin that is synthesised. Low levels of iron in the second and third trimester lead to fatigue, cardiovascular stress impaired resistance to infection.

In addition, should surgical intervention be required, lack of iron reduces the mother’s tolerance of blood loss and of the surgery itself.

As far as the foetus is concerned, low iron intake and storage on the part of the mother diminishes the ability of the foetus to store iron as well. Such children may exhibit stunted growth, and reduced intelligence.

* Vitamin C is essential for the formation of collagen. This is a protein necessary for connective tissue, cartilage and bone. It is also essential for healthy nerves, gums and teeth and for the prevention of infection.

It also may prevent leg cramps during pregnancy. It has also been found that high levels of Vitamin C reduce labour time and pain during childbirth and reduce the chances of developing stretch marks!

* Zinc deficiency has been associated with low infant birth weight, growth retardation, and congenital abnormalities. In addition, complications of pregnancy and delivery occur more frequently.

Infants whose mothers were zinc deficient have irreversibly damaged immune systems so are more susceptible to infections, are more likely to develop asthma and arthritis.

* Add a Calcium-Magnesium supplement Calcium is essential for both the mother and the foetus. Adequate calcium plays a role in preventing cramps, high blood pressure during pregnancy (called pre-eclampsia), premature delivery and low birth weight as well as post partum depression.

Pre-eclampsia is a condition that pushes up your blood pressure and can affect your baby, so that an early delivery becomes necessary. The foetus will take calcium from whatever source it can to develop its bones, and indeed the need for calcium doubles during pregnancy. If the mother’s diet is short of this element, calcium will be leached from her teeth and bones to satisfy the needs of the growing foetus.

Magnesium, as well as Vitamin D, are necessary for proper absorption and utilisation of calcium. The best natural way to get Vitamin D is to spend some time in the sun each day. If this is impossible for any reason, consider supplementation.

Remember that the foetus is in fact a parasite in the mother’s body, and has no respect for her needs!

* Omega 3 essential oils. These are essential for the development of the brain and nerves of the developing foetus as well as effective development of the eyes.

Some additional important roles of omega 3 oils include the following:

- Proper development of the cardiac and respiratory systems.

- Improving the learning and cognitive function of the child, still measurable up to the age of 4.

- Increased attention span in the child

– indicating increased intelligence.

- Supports a healthy pregnancy with reduced risk of toxaemia (or pre-eclampsia).

- May prevent early labour and premature birth.

Again, if there is not enough Omega-3 in the system the foetus will take what it needs wherever it can find it. A major source would be the mother’s brain tissue.

In fact, it has been shown that the size of the mother’s brain cells (but not the number) shrinks during pregnancy if she is not getting enough essential oils and phospholipids in her diet.

When this happens, maternal depression is a likely consequence.

* Protein is essential to prevent the development of toxaemia. This condition is very dangerous, and if not managed correctly can lead to death of both the mother and the infant.

Adequate protein in the blood reduces the development of oedema, which in turn causes the puffiness, sudden weight gain and high blood pressure characteristic of toxaemia.

* Fibre. The recommended intake of fibre during pregnancy is 20 to 30 grams per day. Taking less fibre increases your risk of pre-eclampsia.

AFTER PREGNANCY

Congratulations! You have produced a healthy new little person full of potential. And, in a way, your task has just begun! As a mother you are almost completely responsible for the early needs of your baby, and indeed continue to play a vital role in teaching your child to become a healthy well balanced adult in the future.

Nursing

The first task is the nursing phase. There is no doubt about it: breast feeding is the best thing to do, both for the baby and the mother. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the rewards extend far beyond just nutrition.

However, here the focus will be on the nutritional side. Just as during pregnancy, all the nutritional needs of your baby must be supplied by you in the milk that you provide. Therefore your personal nutritional needs are of primary importance.

You absolutely must continue to look after your diet and supplement adequately.

Mother’s milk is a complicated biological fluid custom-made for the needs of the feeding infant.

Colostrum is produced first. This is a thin yellowish fluid that carries vital nutrients from the mother to the newborn infant. It is rich in maternal immunoglobulins for ongoing immunity in the infant until it can begin making these proteins for itself.

In addition it contains all the other nutrients that the infant needs in the correct proportions.Almost miraculously, milk that is produced later changes in composition to match the changing needs of the growing infant.

This is an important point to understand: human milk is tailor-made for human infants, and cow’s milk is designed for calves. The needs are clearly different, so cow’s milk is not suitable for human babies!

Remember too that feeding cow’s milk to newborns can lead to allergies.The infant’s digestive and immune systems are too immature to deal with the foreign proteins present in the cow’s milk.

Some of the specific needs for this stage include the following:

* Folic acid levels might be low after giving birth, so a good multivitamin supplement remains essential.

* Your iron reserves might well have become depleted during delivery, as there is a certain loss of blood.

The recommended intake of iron for lactating mothers is 9 mg per day. Insufficient iron intake leads to weakness and tiredness at a time when your energy needs to be high to cope with the new stresses placed upon you.

* Calcium must be supplemented so that the milk is calcium rich to supply for the needs of the infant. Insufficient supply will mean that calcium will be leached from your bones and teeth so that the milk is suitably nutritious for the feeding infant.

* Omega-3 oils must still be provided to the infant. If the mother’s own supplies are put at risk a serious consequence can be post partum depression for the mother, and poor development of the brain and eyes for the baby.

* Zinc is needed by the feeding infant, and the mother’s reserves can drop significantly. This can also play a role in maternal post-partum depression and even psychosis.

Some specific needs

Some of the specific needs for this stage include the following:

* Folic acid levels might be low after giving birth, so a good multivitamin supplement remains essential.

* Your iron reserves might well have become depleted during delivery, as there is a certain loss of blood. The recommended intake of iron for lactating mothers is 9 mg per day. Insufficient iron intake leads to weakness and tiredness at a time when your energy needs to be high to cope with the new stresses placed upon you.

* Calcium must be supplemented so that the milk is calcium rich to supply for the needs of the infant. Insufficient supply will mean that calcium will be leached from your bones and teeth so that the milk is suitably nutritious for the feeding infant.

* Omega-3 oils must still be provided to the infant. If the mother’s own supplies are put at risk a serious consequence can be post partum depression for the mother, and poor development of the brain and eyes for the baby.

* Zinc is needed by the feeding infant, and the mother’s reserves can drop significantly. This can also play a role in maternal post-partum depression and even psychosis.

A final note:

Our comments and recommendations are based on reading a lot of articles and books on the subject, written by reputable health scientists. In this article we have steered clear of the heavy scientific stuff and just summarized the most reliable findings.

The bottom line is that for the optimal health and well-being of both the parents and the infant during the pregnancy, ongoing attention to ones nutritional needs is essential, and supplementation plays an essential role in making this possible.

Pregnancy is a special time of life, but the basics of cellular nutrition remain the same throughout our lives. Learn more about this here.